In Croatia there is a “significant gap” between the political elite, which is “resolutely turned towards EU integration”, and public opinion, which is “still lukewarm on the issue,” according to Jacques Rupnik, a researcher at Sciences Po in Paris. The Balkan specialist spoke to EURACTIV France in an interview.
Croatia’s new President Ivo Josipovic “can promote the opening of the population’s minds” to EU accession, he said, adding that “his words and his status” will give him the authority to do so.
Opposition Social Democrat Josipovic won the presidential election on 10 January, promising to help the government’s efforts to complete European Union membership talks and join the bloc in 2012 (EURACTIV 11/01/10).
Croatia is poised to become the first country to join the EU since the accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007. The country is expected to complete its accession negotiations in 2010 and join in 2012 (see EURACTIV LinksDossier).
“The fact that Ivo Josipovic puts Europe at the heart of his speeches is very important,” Rupnik said.
Even though the president’s political role has become “highly symbolic” since the 1990s as the regime became more parliamentarian, the new president has “also certain powers in terms of foreign policy,” he said.
“On all matters concerning Europe, [Josipovic’s] predecessor, Stjepan Mesic, clearly broke with his country’s strategy from the 90s,” Rupnik said. “He promoted cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, but also defined the attitude of Croatia towards Bosnia, which means that he chose not to play the separatist card any more,” he added. “Finally, he encouraged the return of the Serb minority expelled in 1995,” the analyst noted.
“The new president intends to follow on the same path,” he said. But “the context in Croatia has changed in the meantime: people no longer wonder whether EU membership would be a good thing or a threat to newly-acquired sovereignty”. The issue now is to know “when to join and how to ensure that the internal dynamics will continue”.
Regarding the Kosovo problem, Rupnik insisted that “European pedagogy consists of reconciliation”. Indeed, Western Balkan countries have not yet found a modus vivendi on how to deal with Kosovo and its hybrid status (EURACTIV 20/01/10).
As Josipovic sees it, “going to international courts can bring satisfaction to the victims. However politically this approach doesn’t help regional reconciliation or the objective of EU integration,” Rupnik stressed.
“2012 seems a quite realistic deadline” for Croatia’s EU accession, he said. “Even if the country is ready in 2011, 2012 appears as a more reasonable deadline because of the greater emphasis on member states not to repeat the alleged error of 2007,” Rupnik insisted, claiming Bulgaria and Romania’s accession was “a bit hasty”.
Nevertheless, “we should not push the deadline too far, because Croatia is the most positive signal that the EU could send to the Western Balkans,” Rupnik concluded.